Thursday, 27 July 2017

Book #32

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol

Russia's great nineteenth-century satirical absurdist shows what happens when a man wakes up with his nose missing, and illustrates the folly of boasting.

I really enjoyed this satire.

Gogol weaves an utterly absurd tale about a man who wakes up one morning without his nose. Worse than that, the nose appears in his barber’s morning roll. And to go even further, he soon encounters his nose wandering around wearing a uniform of rank - a rank higher than his own.

It’s a social commentary on vanity, the importances we place on appearance, on rank and class, and human nature’s paranoia when looked upon by other person. Gogol’s story follows no logic, makes no sense, yet his thoughts on the matter are made completely clear. I particularly loved how the nose fell out of a bread roll one moment, sized as one would expect a nose to be sized, and the next moment it was strolling round St Petersburg the height of a man, and wearing men’s clothing - with no explanation provided.

Reported as having quite the monstrous nose himself, I am basking in the idea that this story came from his desire to get rid of it.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Book #31

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences.

Before reading this novel, my knowledge of Mao’s Cultural Revolution amounted to zero. I was so looking forward to beginning an exploration into this period in history, and somewhat bolstering my intelligence in learning of the political upheaval for the Chinese people. How someone can take such a multi-layered segment of history and turn it into a dull four-hundred pages of blether, astounds me, yet by god Thien has managed it.

There should be real impact here, morals, heart. Thien’s writing style limits all of this, and feels hugely like a lecture in music for the majority of the time. As someone with no grasp, nor desire to grasp, the nuances of music, I found it difficult to struggle through the endless descriptions of the most minute details in the anatomy of sound. Peppered with the most florid styles, the narrative felt as though it should be attacked with a pair of pruning shears. I was tickled by a metaphor and stroked by some sort of imagery every few sentences. It was too much.

Salvation could truly have come from the characters. Thien showed us different generations of the same family, each of them beginning beautifully, and with the most gorgeous names - Swirl, Sparrow, Old Cat, Wen the Dreamer, Big Mother Knife - all of them seeming so exciting in the early pages, only to bring nothing, to become as bland as the paragraphs on Bach.

I know in my heart that the revolution created such heartbreak, loss, and sadness in China, yet I felt none of these things. The complete lack of connection I felt to the characters was instrumental in building nothing but apathy inside me, and a guilt for not feeling the pain I should have. Even this review has been written with a passivity that brings guilt to me.

With a grey and woolly storyline, prose that stuck my eyes together, and a completely unsatisfactory dip into Chinese history that just droned on and on, this work by Thien is an utter disappointment.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Book #30

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.
As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?

Franz Huchel is a seventeen year old mummy’s boy who moves from his quiet and lazy life in the Salzkammergut to Vienna, where he begins work as a tobacconist’s apprentice (arranged by mother, of course). The tobacconist himself, Otto Trsynek, is an utter defiant; having had one of his legs blown off in the First World War, he makes no secret of his political opinions, and as a result is branded a Jew-lover by his peers, and is persecuted terribly.

One of the tobacconist’s more notable Jewish customers is the Professor Sigmund Freud himself, who enjoys the Nene Freie Presse and twenty Virginias. Franz becomes fascinated with this intelligent yet vilified figure, and they develop a strange and gorgeous relationship through cigars and conversation. The words passed between them illustrate the changes in Vienna, and the slow loss of safety for its people. They are also testament to Franz’s transition from (quite frankly a quite irritating) mummy’s boy into a strong, wilful young man.

Beautifully, Franz falls in love with a Bohemian girl, and laments for pages and pages over this lost love. The contrast of this against the political backdrop was quite jarring, and seeing Franz realise this towards the end of the novel was a gorgeous thing to see.

Seethaler’s writing has an almost lyrical, melancholy feel to it. He describes the smallest details of Vienna, the most minute things captured by Franz’s senses, so that character, time, and place all come together to create a setting of pure wonder. All of this came through perfectly in the translation, and the result was captivating.

A very quiet and gentle commentary on the Nazi occupation, it shows the life of one boy, and how the Nazis affected it - however minutely in the grand scheme of the Holocaust. The finale is a grand punch of satisfaction peppered with a realisation of the futility of it all. A wonderfully poetic depiction of life during the Anschluss - I loved it.